6 Refereeing Tips Every New Fencer Needs to Hear

When someone asks you to referee a fencing bout, does your heart skip a beat? Does your mouth go dry? Do you suddenly forget how to speak?

Perhaps your reaction isn’t that dramatic, but you still agree to referee rather reluctantly. Like many novice fencers, you’re worried about following the action and you certainly don’t want to upset your club mates with a bad call.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial that all fencers learn to referee a bout competently. Learning to call out fencing actions accurately will enable you to leverage the rules of fencing when you’re on the fencing piste. Not to mention that getting good at refereeing fencing bouts will earn you serious reputation points at your club.

So we highly recommend that you volunteer to referee as many bouts as you can, but it would behoove you to learn how to do it well. As the saying goes:

Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.

With that in mind, let’s discuss the mistakes you’re bound to make when you first start refereeing fencing bouts — if you haven’t made them already — and how you can avoid them.

Fencing Referee Mistake #1: Calling Halt…Eventually

tips for refereeing dry fencing boutDirecting a bout of dry fencing is challenging. Sometimes you can’t tell if a touch was scored on-target or off-target, let alone that there was actually a touch. It’s understandable if you miss one or two touches given those difficulties. Nevertheless, many a novice fencer has refereed a dry fencing bout and let one touch go by, a second, a third, then a fourth before  finally calling “halt!”

If you’ve done that, you probably just wanted to be certain that there was a touch. And while you should look for a bent blade when calling out a touch, not every touch is that definitive. Some attacks land lightly but with just enough pressure to count as a touch.

You can avoid this minor error by following a simple rule:

When in doubt, call halt!

Sure, the attack might have gone passé or even fallen short by a third of an inch, but it’s better to call halt early once or twice than let several valid touches go by without any calls.

Fencing Referee Mistake #2: Whisper Whisper Whisper…

Imagine that you’re directing a bout (you can imagine your reluctance, too, if that makes it more vivid). You’ve told the fencers to get in en garde, asked them if they’re ready, you tell them to start fencing, but nothing happens. Then Lefty Larry asks if they can start.

Or imagine this: They’ve been fencing, you saw that a touch was scored, and told them to halt. But they just keep fencing. They finally stop after you raise your voice, but by then you forgot what the action was.

The moral of the story here? You guessed it: You need to speak up when you’re refereeing fencing bouts. After all, the two fencers are wearing masks that can impede hearing, if only slightly. And as you can imagine, this rule of thumb is especially crucial if the fencing club is busy and noisy.

Now, when you start trying to raise your voice, you might be tempted to simply raise its pitch. Instead, you need to project your voice to be heard over the din of your fencing club, as demonstrated in this video:

Fencing Referee Mistake #3: Forgetting About Your Ears

Let’s give your voice a break and talk about your hearing. Many fencers who are new to refereeing fencing bouts rely solely on their eyes to call an action and forget about their ears.

Here’s an illustration to make this problem clearer:

You see Larry attack, and it looks like Righty Robin waved her blade around before lunging into Larry. You call halt and say that it’s Larry’s point because Robin just counterattacked. Robin takes her mask off and in so many words accuses you of being blind as a bat. She clearly parried Larry’s attack! It was just a small parry, she insists, and there was clearly a clang from the blade contact.

You can avoid situations like this by using your ears alongside your eyes. Listening for instances of blade contact will help you differentiate between instances of parry ripostes and counterattacks when you can’t clearly see blade contact. And keeping track of how many instances of blade contact occurred can help you call actions like counter-parry ripostes, beat attacks, and counter-beat attacks.

Fencing Referee Mistake #4: Too Much Information

Yet another common mistake is the habit of providing too many details when you’re explaining who got the point. Stop me if you’ve done this before:

“Larry extended his arm first, then he lunged, and Robin stuck her arm out and moved her body out of the way. Then Larry missed, and Robin hit, and she got the point.”

Even if that’s what happened, you didn’t need to provide that much detail. When you’re calling fencing actions, you need to keep it simple. For example, the scenario above is one where the fencer on the left initiated an attack and the fencer on the right counterattacked in response. Here’s the correct way to make the call:

“Attack from the left is ‘no,’ counterattack from the right arrives. Touch right.”

Along the lines of this refereeing tip, you should study the United States Fencing Association’s rule book to learn how to make proper calls. But for your convenience, here’s a chart of some of the most common mistakes novice fencers make when describing an action and the terminology you should use instead:

Fencing referee tip: use proper terminology when calling actions.

Fencing Referee Mistake #5: Calling Sabre and Foil As If They’re Épée

Wrong weapon!

You can skip this one if you only fence epee. Many fencers new to refereeing either sabre or foil will make the mistake of assigning points based on who hit first. And all of those fencers will then hear this famous line:

It’s not about who hits first. It’s about who has right of way.

If you’ve ever made this mistake, it’s probably because you’re focusing solely on the touches. You also need to focus on the actions that led up to the touches. In other words, you need to focus on right of way!

Right of way differs depending on whether you’re watching a foil bout or a sabre bout. The rules of right of way — or rules of priority, as the USFA Rule Book terms them — are fairly similar for the two weapons, but there are some differences. Here’s a rough and ready summary of how right of way works in either weapon:

  • You gain right of way by beating your opponent’s blade, disengaging while they search for your blade, riposting immediately after parrying, or initiating the first attack.
  • Initiating the attack involves threateningly moving your weapon arm toward your opponent’s body before attacking, but that’s where the similarities end.
  • In sabre, your blade needs to hit your opponent’s target area before your front foot hits the floor as you lunge.

Don’t rely entirely on these summaries, though. Just like with the terminology you should use when directing, you need to read the rule book to thoroughly understand how right of way works.

Fencing Referee Mistake #6: Doubting Yourself

What follows is probably the greatest mistake of them all. All too often, fencers who are new to refereeing will doubt themselves when making a call and look to observers or their coach for their opinion. Asking for help when you’re truly stumped is understandable, but there’s an even better option: Just throw out the touch.

The referee’s word is final. The fencers need to respect that authority, and displaying a lack of confidence in your own judgments will only encourage them to insert their biased opinions into your calls. Demonstrating that you’ll defer to no one’s opinion than your own when you’re not sure about what happened reinforces that you have the final say.


Parting Thoughts

You probably don’t have dreams of becoming a professional fencing referee, but being able to referee a fencing bout competently is nevertheless an important skill. It will help you become a better fencer and a trusted member of your fencing club.

Next time you’re at Swordplay LA for Monday night open fencing, make sure you volunteer to referee a bout and use the advice you’ve gained today. See you soon!

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